By Katie Malatino

Sheldon Jackson ’23 is spearheading refinements to a software that helps people with visual impairments navigate the world.

The Rensselaer Center for Open Source (RCOS) was approached to collaborate on developing an open-source replacement for Microsoft’s Soundscape. Open source refers to software with code that is accessible and editable by the public, and RCOS brings together students to work on projects that help society.

Jackson volunteered to lead the RCOS effort within a global consortium and has gone above and beyond what was expected. First, Jackson applied for Nuvalence Builder Funds through Rensselaer’s Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship. The fund, made possible by Nuvalence co-founders Sinclair Schuller ’04 and Abe Sultan ’04 along with Rakesh Malhotra, purchased the hardware for Jackson to use on the project. Then, Jackson recruited a team of fellow Rensselaer coders to help improve the application.

“The application uses a fairly complex system to generate audio cues to provide navigation for people with visual impairments,” Jackson said. “Users input their location and their destination and it creates a trail of beacons. The beacons allow the creation of mind maps so other people can easily navigate complex spaces. Audio signals in the corresponding ear steer users where to go. One improvement that we made is that the sound is different if you’re headed in the right direction verses the wrong direction.”

Jackson entered Rensselaer’s Change the World Challenge through the Severino Center, in which students turn their ideas into viable business concepts, and won $1,000 to further the project. He used the funds to host the website for the application, which is now gathering emails and collecting donations.

“We are creating business models around this application so it can be profitable and the community is not left without something it needs and, in many cases, has been using for everyday life,” Jackson said.

A computer science student, Jackson has taken an exceptionally entrepreneurial path during his time at Rensselaer. Early in his career here, he started a consulting company, through which he has leveraged the Soundscape project into a paid position following his graduation in May.

“Sheldon has been quick to jump on projects that involve working with external groups with real deliverables and actual needs,” said Wes Turner, senior lecturer in computer science. “When a member of the RPI community asked for help building a website for a charitable organization, Sheldon stepped up and led a team in building out a great website to accept donations and organize activities. He has been one of the senior student leaders in RCOS for a substantial period. He is an excellent organizer and excels in keeping his teams occupied and busy. His work on the Soundscape application has brought Sheldon’s leadership skills to the next level.”

“Sheldon is an amazing team leader who has gone outside of his comfort zone to do customer discovery and enter some of our entrepreneurship competitions,” said Kelly Reardon-Sleicher, associate program director of the Severino Center. “I am really impressed by his drive and creativity, and I’m sure he will make significant societal impact in his career ahead.”

The Charlotte, North Carolina native chose RPI because of the opportunities and connections it presents. “RPI gave me opportunities to work on projects that I care about and the resources I needed to achieve success,” said Jackson.

Following his graduation, Jackson will focus on his company, Simplicity Tech Solutions, through which he will continue his work on Soundscape, along with web and mobile application development.